In working on John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood , one of the things that was extremely important to pin down was — when and how did the “bloated budget” negative storyline begin, and how did it roll out? Ironically, The Lone Ranger had everything to do with it. Below is the current draft of the chapter dealing with this. It’s a little rough still, but it’s rounding into shape and it’s been a week or two since I shared anything from the book, so here it is. (Also, after the end of the article, some of my more recent thoughts on the title.)
The Lone Ranger clips John Carter
John Carter of Mars had been too far advanced at the time of Rich Ross’s arrival in October 2009 for Ross to put on the brakes or cancel the project. Principal photography was less than 90 days away; all the main cast had been signed, all the contracts were in place for special effects — the Carter horse was out of the barn. Not so Captain Nemo: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Ross quickly moved to pull the plug on it.
Now, 18 months later, in the summer of 2011 with John Carter’s campaign just being activated, Ross was struggling with Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski over the budget of The Lone Ranger, which was set to go into production in October 2011 for a release date of December 21, 2012. The budget of $250m was the issue — a budget that between Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and star Johnny Depp was more a function of “above the line” star/producer/director costs than the wind and grind of film-making.
Breaking the news, Deadline Hollywood ran with the headline: “SHOCKER! Disney halts “The Lone Ranger” with Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski.” Within the article, there was what would turn out to be a fateful reference to John Carter:
This had to be an incredibly tough call for Disney’s Rich Ross and Sean Bailey, but they have several huge live-action bets on the table already. Budgetbusters include John Carter, the Andrew Stanton-directed adaptation of John Carter of Mars with Friday Night Lights‘ Taylor Kitsch in the lead role, which has a budget that has ballooned to around $250 million….
This is the first mention that John Carter’s budget was anything other than the $150m that had been released at the time of Taylor Kitsch’s casting announcement in June 2009. Because it was relatively buried in the article — and because the focus was on the more dramatic shut-down of Lone Ranger production, the reference to John Carter’s budget having “ballooned to $250m” did not generate immediate commentary, but, as it turned out, this was a key piece to the puzzle explaining how it was that John Carter eventually attracted a feeding frenzy of hostile press coverage, much of it driven by the impression that John Carter was a production out of control.
The question arises — who or what was the source for Mike Fleming’s reference to the John Carter budget having reached $250m? As is typically the case with Deadline Hollywood’s reporting, the source is not identified but it can be inferred that upon getting the news of the shutdown, Fleming and Nikki Finke were on the phone immediately to any and all of their contacts inside Disney. And with Deadline being arguably the most influential source for breaking “insider” type studio news, there were those within Disney who were ready to talk, and who had as their objective to justify the “shocking” decision by Ross to shut down Bruckheimer’s film. The key talking point from Disney was there were just too many films with huge budgets and Ross was just trying to act responsibly, and in the proces force Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp to do so as well.
In order to build this argument — whether as an intentional strategy or something spontaneous — the lid came off the fact that John Carter’s budget was $250m. Moreover, the “ballooned to $250m” reference was all the more damning, but was made necessary by the fact that Disney had fed the press a budget figure of $150m at the time Kitsch was signed in June 2009. In reality, while then Disney chief Dick Cook may have wanted the film to come in at $150m at the time of Kitsch’s casting, no firm budget had yet been created and agreed to at the time of the Kitsch announcement. It was only months after Kitsch’s casting that Stanton’s team and Disney had the budget meeting that resulted in the budget being approved at $250m.
Stanton would later vehemently and credibly contend that he stayed on budget from day one based on this approval prior to the start of shooting. But that didn’t matter in August 2011, because the seeds of the “out of control production” story that would ultimately bring down John Carter more than anything else, were now planted.
The $250m reference was not the only seed.
Another important seed came from a lengthy “edit bay interview” of Stanton which was released through multiple outlets timed to coincide with the release of the first teaser trailer in July 2011, a month before the announcement about Lone Ranger.
For the edit bay interviews, about 30 journalists were taken to Barsoom Studios in Berkeley, where they were given a presentation by Stanton and producer Jim Morris that included the trailer, selected scenes, a viewing of art and costumes, and a lengthy presentation by Stanton. The journalists in attendance were armed in advance with questions about the reshoot because of Stanton’s casual comment in the June 15 LA Times interview in which he talked about having done a “month of reshoots” — an attention getting number in an industry where anything more than a “pickup day” or two is regarded as sign of a “troubled production”:
Question: You come from an environment where a lot of the creative process happens in the post-production. I was wondering, I heard you did a screening at Pixar and there was a bunch of reshoots. It sounds like you’re bringing that [Pixar] process to this. Could you talk a little about that?
Stanton: It’s been interesting to compare apples to oranges now that we’re out there. I’ve always seen live action as the adults: They really get to make the movies, and we’re just kids here doing our little thing. I’ve always wanted to give it the intelligence and everything. That’s a bad trap you fall into, and the shocking thing when I got out there was like, “Oh my God, we actually know how to do it better on a lot of things back here [at Pixar].” I think some of that isn’t because people are bad at their job but that people are stuck in a certain way that it’s always been done. You can say that about any system. Pixar had this luxury of being ignorant and young and not knowing how it’s done. We saw from afar how we thought movies were made, and we used logic—turns out that’s not used that often. Then the other advantage is we have a pseudo-studio system of the modern era: We have the same people working together again and again and again. It’s like having the same team players on the same sports team for 20 seasons. You get really good at all the things that you would never value: How information is brought across to things, how things are delegated. The simplest, most mundane things have been honed down to their most efficient and smart way of what’s best for the film thinking. I saw nothing but improvement everywhere I went once I left this building—it was overload.
One of the other things that I realized is animation, because you can put it all up in drawing form that you’re not going to keep, in the grand scheme of things it’s a cheap way to make something. You draw it, you put your own voice on it, you cut it, and you don’t like it, and you do it again. You do it every six months over three to four years. Every time you do that, that’s the equivalent of a reshoot, so I’ve been taught how to make a movie with four reshoots built in every time. And you wonder why our movies are good? It’s not because we’re smarter, it’s not because we’re better, it’s because we are in a system that recognizes that you don’t go, “Oh my God, okay, I’m going to paint this, but I can only touch the brush once and I’m only going to make one stroke. That stroke’s asked, and we’re done; we’re not making this painting.” I get to try it, play it, don’t like that, play it again, no, play it again, record it—most creative processes allow for somebody to go off into their shack, their studio, their recording booth, and try stuff until they figure it out and find it. This is such an expensive way to make something creative, which is a movie. People freak, and they want to hold it all in. They want to see, “Can you be really smart and think about it some more and plan some more? Just do it once. Or maybe twice.” Most places now aren’t even letting you think about it; they’re like, “Just do it! Maybe you’ll luck out.” We planned the bejesus out of it here. I’ve never met people who plan more than we do, and we do it four times over. You have no excuse: It’s got to be good. I never had to argue, but my explanation to Disney when they were going, “Why do we have to reshoot, and why is this number so bad?” I said, “You’re taking somebody who’s learned how to do it three to four times and do it once.” I tried to be as smart as I could and raise the bar as high as I could with the script before we went shooting knowing I wasn’t going to get these same iterations, then tried to be as smart as I could about doing the reshoots. It’s still less than what I’m used to. You start to understand the logistical problem trying to do that. It’s such a gypsy culture: You don’t get to keep the same people. They’re not in that building; you can’t grab them on a Thursday and go, “What if we do this?” All your actors are gone off. It’s a real conundrum, and believe me, we’re trying to think if we do another one, how can we improve upon what we’ve learned? We’ve managed to seduce some of that with our thinking on this, but there’s huge room for improvement. It’s a gnarly problem; I get it.
And so it was that between Stanton’s casual reference in the LA Times on June 15 to “a month of reshoots” led to questions like the one above, which in turn led Stanton to answer truthfully and at length concerning his “Pixarian” approach to live action film-making and how re-doing things in a way that live action directors usually don’t, or aren’t allowed to, is part of a process that he believed to be superior to the traditional “get it right the first time” approach that studios had used for live action film-making.
The combination of a film that had apparently started with a budget of $150m and “ballooned” to $250m on the back of a “month of reshoots”; a first time live action director asserting that Pixar had figured out a “better way” that he was applying to live action filming; and the tough marketing slog that it was widely acknowledged the film would face all combined to create a toxic combination for Stanton, John Carter, and Disney.
Even so, it would take sixty days for the combination to germinate, and it would be not the entertainment press, but a mainstream media moment that would bring the budget issue fully into focus and launch what would eventually become a virtual tidal wave of negativity.
One note about the foregoing — I’m closing in on figuring out exactly who let the cat out of the bag about the $250m budget, but I’m not “naming names” yet until I can really lock it down.
Regarding the title of the book — I have to confess I’m having a problem with the “Hollywood vs” formulation. My problem is that it just doesn’t feel quite right to me to be declaring a partisan position in the title, even though I know this is commonly done. But I’ve been looking into it — the typical formulation where you do a title, then subtitle that is basically a one-line summation of your hypothesis, is just that — a book that posits a hypothesis, and then accumulates facts and arguments to support the argument.
This is different.
This is like doing a Hollywood version of something like Warren Commission Report, or a Titanic (the ship, not the movie) investigation. It’s what the FCC does after a plane crash: Look at all the evidence and figure out what went wrong, and how. Clearly, having watched this unfold step by step I have some opinions, but those opinions need to be tested by a careful assembly of all the facts that can be obtained from all possible sources.
And I’ve noticed that among those who are skeptical of the “blame Disney” argument, having a title that seems to be heading toward a “blame Disney” solution loses credibility and the skeptic who should read it, probably won’t, because they will feel that it’s obviously a biased account — you can tell that just by the title.
So the title is still wide open.
I have thought about a title as simple as “The John Carter Report”.
Today a more “out there” title occurred to me: “John Carter and the Princes of Hollywood”.
That one kind of tickles me. The Princes of Hollywood would include all of the elite who touched the movie — Dick Cook, Rich Ross, MT Carney, Andrew Stanton, Jim Morris — all of them.
But I don’t’ know if it sounds substantive or serious enough.
Anyway — please help me sort through this title issue as I continue toward the finish line.
As for my progress — it says 90,145 words so far en route to what looks like about 120,000 words on the first draft (to be shortened back to around 100,000 when I edit/rewrite.) I’m about to enter the portion of the story that I actually lived — the final 10 weeks up to the release — and I think the last part is going to be the easiest because I lived it. The John Carter Files was started on December 10th so there’s a day by day record here, and I kept detailed stats on social media figures before and after the beginning of the TV spots, comparing JC to Hunger Games and the other films coming out in March. In sum I think I’ve made it out of the “swamp” and am on dry land, and can give a pretty good finishing kick to get to the end.